Without his Providence public school education, Mayor Angel Taveras would not be where he is today, he told audience members at a forum to address pending school closings. But, he said, the city's fiscal challenges require overhauling the school system to cut costs, meaning fewer schools and unwanted changes for parents, students and teachers.
"If you have a solution, if you have an idea, please share it with us," Taveras told the crowd at the Saturday morning forum organized by the Parent Advisory Council, a parent leadership group in the district. The gathering, held in a gymnasium at the John Hope Settlement House on Providence's West Side, was the first in a series of meetings to allow community members to voice their opinions and get answers from city officials before the Providence School Board decides whether to approve the recommended closings. The Providence Public School Department is holding six forums this week starting Tuesday.
The meetings come as the public reels from last Monday's school closings announcement. The city plans to close four elementary schools and turn Bridgham Middle School into an elementary school for students from the Asa Messer Elementary School and the Asa Messer Annex, two of the schools slated for closure. City officials also recommended relocating the students of West Broadway Elementary School, which is now housed in a middle school.
Officials estimate that between about 1,500 and 1,900 students will be affected by the changes, either through relocation to a different school or reassignment within the same school building. The closures and concurrent teacher firings are projected to save at least $12 million for the city, which faces a $180 million two-year budget deficit and a $40 million deficit in its school department budget.
Tom Nolan, a first-grade teacher at Flynn Elementary School, said he was "just as confused as everyone else" about how the district will decide which teachers to retain if the closures go into effect. He said he hoped to get answers from the Saturday morning forum.
"With the amount of money my school needs, I wasn't surprised," Nolan said of the decision to close Flynn. The closings have generated anxiety among his students, who are not sure where they will go to school next year, he said.
According to the financial report commissioned by Taveras when he took office in January, expenditures on education make up nearly 55 percent of the city's budget. Personnel costs, including teacher salaries, comprise about 85 percent of total school spending.
School administrators plan to eliminate 40 to 70 teaching positions — first by offering retirement incentives to approximately 200 eligible teachers and later by firing teachers according to criteria to be agreed upon by the Providence Teachers Union and the city's school department. Taveras issued dismissal notices to all Providence teachers Feb. 22, citing the need for "maximum flexibility" in trimming costs.
"The challenge is how we're going to resolve those rescissions and call-backs," Providence School Superintendent Tom Brady, who also spoke at the forum Saturday, told The Herald. He said options for deciding which teachers keep their jobs range from criterion-based hiring, a process in which teachers apply to be rehired, to seniority, the automatic "last-hired, first-fired" system that means new teachers are always the first to lose their jobs.
Beginning last fall, teachers in Providence were no longer hired based on seniority and instead were required to submit a portfolio and undergo an interview process through criterion-based hiring. Brady said negotiations with the union to decide how teachers will be fired could take two and a half to three weeks.
"Looking at the size of the budget deficit, it's going to be a challenge," Brady said of maintaining educational quality while slashing costs at the city's schools.
Under state law, class sizes cannot exceed 26 students for regular education and 12 students for special education. The school district will focus on sending students to classrooms that are already below the maximum limit. The average class size will likely increase, said Christina O'Reilly, the spokeswoman for the school department.
The closings will also affect five Swearer Center Programs at the Asa Messer Elementary Schools and Bridgham Middle School. The Swearer Center programs make up the "vast majority" of after-school programs at Asa Messer, according to Jeff Bauer '11, the coordinator of the Brown Language Arts Program. Bauer said the fate of the programs is uncertain at this point, given that it is still unclear where Asa Messer students will be relocated if the school board approves its closure.
Bauer and other coordinators at Asa Messer and its feeder school, Asa Messer Annex, are organizing to advocate at forums this week to keep the Asa Messer community intact if it relocates.
Hannah Miles '13, a coordinator of the Swearer Classroom Program, teaches literacy classes at Asa Messer Annex, which was built in 1895. One of the criteria for closure was the condition of the school building. "It's a really old building," she said. "The city would have to sink a lot of money in it to keep it running."
Providence schools will not be the only educational institutions feeling the budget crunch if Taveras has his way.
When one attendee at the Saturday forum asked the mayor whether the city was looking into finding other sources of revenue from tax-exempt non-profits like Brown, Taveras said his administration had already begun conversations with the city's non-profits. Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson and Wales and Providence College agreed in 2003 to pay $50 million to the city over 20 years, but that agreement was negotiated with former Providence Mayor David Cicilline '83. Providence's hospitals currently make no direct contributions to the city.
"I don't believe anyone is exempt from this," Taveras said.